Judge Tarek Bitar‘s investigation into the 2020 explosion, which flattened swathes of the city when hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port detonated, has been suspended since late 2021 by lawsuits brought by senior politicians whom he has sought to question.
That has left him unable to summon suspects or press charges, but also means that individuals detained after the blast but cleared of suspicion have remained in custody.
In the letter, dated Monday, Justice Minister Henry Khoury asked the country’s Higher Judicial Council to discuss assigning a judicial investigator “to work on urgent and necessary matters in the Beirut port explosion case.”
That secondary judge would stay in place “as long as the original investigator cannot carry out his missions – including release requests”, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.
The Judicial Council had agreed to the plan, and Khoury would now propose one or more candidates, a senior judicial source said, adding that the new judge would not be empowered to issue charges.
Khoury did not respond to a request for comment.
Judges in Lebanon are often subject to influence from the governing elite, whose tradition of dividing up power along sectarian lines has plunged the country into a political and economic crisis.
A second judicial source said Bitar had been surprised by the move, which he considered “illegal”, and that he would not step down from his role and was keen to return to investigating in full.
A group of independent lawmakers denounced it for “gross violations” of the judicial process said it was intended as a “final blow” to Bitar’s role, according to a statement.
On Tuesday, two parliamentarians from the Free Patriotic Movement – a leading Christian party founded by President Michel Aoun – publicly called for detainees no longer considered parties to the blast to be released.
The letter cited the deteriorating health of some as the driver for Khoury’s request.